Pastoral care (19): Confidentiality creates trust

The Latin term sub rosa—literally meaning “under the rose”—signifies that any content discussed remains under the seal of secrecy. Often these words are found carved into confessionals. They are intended to convey the idea of confidentiality.

In ancient Rome, a rose was fastened to the ceiling to remind those gathered that everything they said was to remain between them alone, in other words, confidential. The image of a rose, or the words sub rosa dictum, which are often still carved into confessionals to this day, are to serve as a reminder that “what is said under the rose” must remain confidential.

An obligation to confidentiality exists in many professions, for example, among doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and ministers. What is meant by this is that the secrets entrusted to them may not be passed on to third parties without authorisation. New Apostolic clergy are also bound to confidentiality: “All ministers are clergymen in the sense of general laws. They are sworn to secrecy as regards all facts of which they have knowledge on the grounds of their work as ministers.”

It is not always clear to everyone what exactly falls under the ministerial pledge of secrecy. It is terrible when ministers just start chatting away without any regard whatsoever as to who might be listening. These kinds of conversations in the sacristy before the service are well known: the minister quickly relates the situation of sister or brother so-and-so, who recently had to undergo a serious operation—with names and a detailed description of the process and everything! Is that allowed? No!

Obligation of confidentiality: yes, please!

Ministers accept the obligation of confidentiality before they are ordained. Such rules are not intended to be restrictive or make pastoral care more difficult. On the contrary: they are what make pastoral care possible in the first place! It boils down to nothing less than the trust that the members have in their ministers. This is the basic condition for all pastoral care. It must be the duty of every minister to reinforce this trust and never abuse it. Once trust has been lost, it has immense consequences for the whole of the Church’s work.

Pastoral care thus presupposes that the content of all conversations will be held in confidence and not passed along to others. This includes, for example, the members’ marital, familial, health, or financial circumstances, as well as their lifestyle, condition of faith, or problems of faith.


Without the consent of the person concerned, information can only be passed on to higher-level ministers if there is an unavoidable need to do so. This is especially the case when

  • there is a risk of considerable damage to the Church (for example, in the event of serious breaches of duty on the part of a minister),
  • a serious criminal offence is planned or ongoing,
  • there are indications of a specific danger to the life or limb of a member (for example, if the intent to commit suicide is expressed).

If it is not possible to consult with leading ministers, the minister decides on the basis of his personal responsibility to alert the state authorities, and informs leading ministers afterwards.


Confession constitutes a special case in pastoral care. Confessional secrets are likewise subject to the obligation of confidentiality. In religious parlance, confession is an acknowledgement of sin or the admission of guilt to a minister. According to the New Apostolic understanding, no confession is required for forgiveness of sins. If, however, an individual is unable to find inner peace, he or she can talk to the Apostle in order to make confession.

In situations of particular urgency when the Apostle cannot be reached, for example, in the case of the dying, any priestly minister can, as an exception, take confession and proclaim absolution. The Apostle is informed of this act without delay.

In our next issue we will focus on a topic that has an impact on many people, either by directly affecting them or their loved ones, namely depression and its effects.

Photo: Alen Dobric -

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life